Mailbag: Free agency and TE hot topics

This week's Patriots mailbag is similar to last week's in that there is a strong difference in opinion with the team's approach to free agency.

Some like the team's focus on re-signing its own players. Others look at the lack of additions from other clubs as a sign of maintaining the status quo.

Throw in the Jets, who have brought in some big names in Antonio Cromartie and LaDainian Tomlinson, and it has some Patriots followers thinking the AFC East now runs through New York.

One of the other hot topics was the tight end position, and the Patriots' struggles in that area. Some other free-agent possibilities, draft chatter, and Bill Belichick's possibly taking on too much responsibility are also touched upon.

Q: Given all the moves the Jets have taken to upgrade their roster (accumulating talent vs. team building debate aside), how would you view the balance of power if they were also able to trade Leon Washington and some draft picks to Denver for Brandon Marshall? I don't want to mistake inactivity for complacency, but there doesn't seem to be any sense of immediacy with the Pats' approach to this offseason. Retaining talent on a team that performed as it should have last year doesn't give me hope that results will be any different next time around. -- Jason (Hantsport, Novia Scotia)

A: Jason, if the Jets get Marshall -- and I think if they offered their first-round draft choice today it would be a done deal -- I'd view them as the NFL's biggest boom-or-bust team. There is potential for explosiveness in that scenario. At the same time, there is potential for the whole thing to blow up with so many egos and volatile personalities in the mix. As for the Patriots, I think it's important to remember that free agency is just one part of the overall equation and not a very good one this year. Between a very strong draft and trades, they will have a much different look. I think their approach has been sound to this point and there is now flexibility to go in a number of different areas in terms of the next pieces to join the team.

Q: Mike, what's your theory on the Pats holding back on signing other teams free agents? My theory is that a "second wave" of free agent signings is imminent in which the Pats will grab a tight end, linebacker and wide receiver. What do you think? -- Steve Foster (Friendswood, Texas)

A: Steve, my theory is that the Patriots assessed the free-agent market and realized the best quality for them was from its 2009 roster. This was a very weak free-agent class. I agree with the "second wave" idea, although I wouldn't rule out some of those additions coming via trade.

Q: How many days in a row can you pretend that signing Wilfork, Banta-Cain, Bodden, Neal and Faulk makes this team so much better? The Jets are by far the better team, so stop pretending and admit to everyone you are on the Patriots' payroll. -- Chris

A: You're fired up today, Chris. The point I'd make is that the offseason picture isn't close to complete. The Patriots are off to a strong start, but there is more work to be done. In a weak year for free agency, I like their strategy to take care of their own and complement that core with some upcoming free-agent signings, trades and draft picks. That's how I think you successfully build a team over time. It sounds to me like you want it all right now, almost to have them take the Washington Redskins' approach and become the March Super Bowl champion. We know how far that has gotten the Redskins in recent years.

Q: Hey Mike, I'm a little disconcerted hearing some Pats fans say the team needed to be more active in free agency. Would it have been nice to have Julius Peppers? Of course. But I'll take Vince Wilfork, Leigh Bodden, and Kevin Faulk over signing him any day because they are going to give you 100 percent all the time, while it seems Peppers doesn't live up to his potential. I think they learned from the Adalius Thomas signing that the big splash doesn't always turn out for the better. Their main problem last year wasn't talent, but locker room mentality. I think they have begun to solve this problem. My question is this: Do you think they need to add more talent via FA, or can they now focus fully on the draft? -- Grant (Columbus, Ohio)

A: Grant, I think they still have some work to do in free agency/trades. They need another veteran receiver in my view (Josh Reed, Deion Branch?) as well as a veteran tight end (Greg Olsen?). That type of experience isn't found in the draft. Also, another pass-rusher would help, and I think they'd pounce on Jason Taylor if he was willing to come here.

Q: Mike, to me, the only way to judge free agency is whether the current team is better than the 2009 team. So far, the team has lost Chris Baker, Jarvis Green, and Benjamin Watson and has added Marques Murrell and David Patten. The losses outweigh the additions. I hope there is a lot more to come before the draft. -- Jim Keddy (Kennebunk, Maine)

A: Jim, I don't really understand the logic in not including Wilfork, Bodden, Faulk, Stephen Neal and Tully Banta-Cain in the analysis. So if they departed, they would have been included like Baker, Green and Watson, but since they were re-signed, they don't count? It seems like the Patriots, in an analysis like this, are being held to a standard that is impossible to meet.

Q: Hi Mike, not sure you can offer much here, but I'm really curious about Josh Reed's visit and the likeliness of his landing with the Pats. Any word on how the visit went, what he's looking for or when something could happen? He seems like a great value at WR, not too pricey given the last few years up in Buffalo and with a solid skill set and locker room value to offer. I see him as a tough, sure handed WR who finds the open spots -- vaguely in the Troy Brown/Hines Ward prototype. Additionally he appears to be a great competitor and locker room/team guy (going by never hearing him complain much in Buffalo, with a lot to speak out about if he chose). Seems like the right type of role player the Pats could pick up at an efficient price. -- JonnyNYC (New York)

A: I agree with this line of thinking, and reading between the lines, my sense is that if Reed wants to play in New England, the opportunity is there for him. I am assuming that the Patriots' initial offer wasn't something Reed was ready to jump at, but that's just my hunch.

Q: Mike, for me the tight end story can be tied to Chris Baker's failure. His long-term deal and promising preseason production facilitated the David Thomas trade and made them comfortable with releasing Alex Smith. His release seems to show that he may not have been a great locker room presence either. How did the Patriots miss so badly here and do you think they are now gun shy at that position? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)

A: Dean, I don't know this for sure, but my sense is that this could be filed in the category of how it's difficult to gauge the total package when you sign a player from another team. When I say total package, I mean things like "How does a player respond in times of adversity? Does he get down on himself? How mentally tough is he?" To me, that might be where Baker fell short in the eyes of the Patriots once the regular season began. I don't think this was an issue of Baker's being a bad locker room guy. Benjamin Watson was in the room with him every day and felt strongly that was not the case. As for the Patriots possibly becoming gun-shy at the position, I don't believe they will. Bill Belichick is a decisive leader, and despite their shoddy track record of late, I expect him to step up to the plate and get his tight end cuts in there.

Q: What are the Patriots actually looking for in a tight end? It seems like there has always been a high turnover at that position. -- Jay (New Hampshire)

A: Jay, I'd say a "combination" type best sums it up -- a tight end who is equally as effective a pass-catcher as he is a blocker. Those tight ends are tougher to find, especially now that there is so much spread offense in the college game. This was one of the prevalent questions in this week's mailbag, with some asking why the team's evaluations on tight ends have been so inconsistent. I think this focus on the "combination" type tight end ties into it. The big-catch tight ends, like the Dallas Clark types, are more one-dimensional, and I don't think they'd have as high of a grade on the Patriots' board.

Q: Hi Mike, there is a gaping hole at tight end, albeit a self inflicted one. I would say that Brady threw to the tight end approximately 5 percent of the time. Their offense does not incorporate the TE like Dallas and Indy. With that in mind, why waste number 22 or even one of the three second-rounders on the position. They always value LBs in the draft with the idea of them being three-down players. Why shouldn't TE be valued the same way? -- John Ford (Walpole, Mass.)

A: John, I think a good tight end creates matchup problems for a defense and that's why I wouldn't give up on the position just yet. A good all-around tight end also makes an offense less predictable and can be a three-down player, so I think the position can have value if the right player is filling it.

Q: Hey Mike, with the recent talk of TE for the Pats, I like the idea of getting Greg Olsen with a second-round pick. But I would like to hear your thoughts on Jimmy Graham from Miami (Fla.). I think he has the potential to be the best TE out of the draft. He has bigger hands than Gronkowski, plus a 38.5 inch vertical and 6-foot-6 frame. He has a basketball background, similar to Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez, who are dominant tight ends in the NFL. I think he is a raw talent that with some development can be a great player. And, I think he will be available sometime during Day 2. I just wanted to know what you think of Graham? -- Chris (Missoula, MT (Boston Transplant)

A: Chris, I like the thought of Graham very much. It sort of reminds me of what the Packers did with Jermichael Finley a few years ago -- taking a very raw player and grooming him while a veteran provides the more immediate return. I think a player like Graham is more of a two-to-three-year project. The problem I see in this scenario is that there is no veteran who really fits on the market right now.

Q: I am very happy we signed Vince Wilfork and Leigh Bodden. I am looking forward to seeing what happens next with the draft. My only concern is coaching. How does Bill Belichick plan to do it all? Or do you think communication will be better since it will be centralized through him? -- Cindie (Lexington, Mass.)

A: Cindie, I don't think Belichick plans to do it all, and I'm anxious to hear what he says about the internal structure of the staff a week from today at the NFL owners meeting. We haven't had the chance to speak with Belichick since the day after the season ended, but next Tuesday morning (7 a.m.) is the annual AFC coaches' breakfast and that could be when Belichick addresses this issue.

Q: Is it possible that we didn't have many leaders because there were so many players in a contract year and they were uncomfortable in that role, as their future with the team was uncertain? For example, Wilfork was in the final year of his contract and wasn't much of a vocal leader, more of a lead-by-example type; but after his new contract he has already stepped up as a vocal leader. Who do you see becoming more of a vocal leader next season? -- Adam C (Mexico)

A: Adam, that is possible, although I'd offer up the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints as an example of a team that had a similar situation and overcame it. I do think Wilfork was in a tough spot to step up and lead when he was battling behind the scenes for a fair contract. I think his teammates knew that he was frustrated at times and because of that, my feeling is that his message wouldn't have been as believable. As for other leaders emerging, I think Banta-Cain is another strong candidate.

Q: Mike, I know that Adalius Thomas is still on the roster. What is Belichick going to do with him? Will they release him or use him in a package to trade for another player such as Brandon Marshall or Kirk Morrison? Everyone says the Pats need a pass rusher and I agree, but don't you think that the Pats should first establish the front line and fill the Seymour vacancy? I believe the DL is more of a need so the LBs can run freely and get pressure on the QB. -- Kevin (Boston, Mass.)

A: Kevin, I think the Patriots will try to trade Thomas and that could mean they hold on to him until the draft, when trades are prevalent. If that doesn't happen, then I think he gets released. I don't see Thomas back with the Patriots next year, and I don't see the Patriots going after Marshall. As for the defensive line vacancy compared to a pass-rusher, I think they need both, and it doesn't matter as much which order they acquire or select them.

Q: Hey Mike, let's say the Pats end up keeping their first-round pick and all three second-round picks, in order, who would you like to see them pick with each of their picks? -- Bill (Charlotte, N.C.)

A: Tough one to answer, Bill, without seeing the way the board unfolds. Defensive end, outside linebacker, tight end, center and receiver/running back are four spots that come to mind. Players like TE Jermaine Gresham (Oklahoma), OC Maurkice Pouncey (Florida), OLB Brandon Graham (Michigan), WR Golden Tate (Notre Dame) and RB Dexter McCluster (Mississippi) would address some of those areas.

Q: Mike, how big of a need is the interior of the offensive line? Do you see the Pats targeting someone like Florida's Maurkice Pouncey with one of their early picks or do they trust the two guys they drafted last year and the backups already on the roster? -- Paul

A: Paul, I think Pouncey is one of the safest picks of this draft and would lock down the center position for the next five years, or at least provide security at guard depending on what happens with Logan Mankins' contract situation. I don't think it is their most pressing need, but depending on the way things unfold, it wouldn't shock me if they head in that direction.

Q: Mike, with the talk of Neal coming back for two more years, and our o-line needing to get a little younger and more talented; what are the chances of the Patriots drafting the lineman from Umass, Vladimir Ducasse? Seems like he could be a Neal/Vollmer type guy. Late comer to football, raw talent, good frame etc. What do you think? -- Matt (Norwood, Mass.)

A: Matt, as much as I'd like to see the Patriots select a player from my alma mater, I don't see the fit. The Patriots ask a lot of their linemen from a sight-adjustment standpoint, and I think they'd have some doubts as to how Ducasse would do in that regard because he's so raw. I see Ducasse fitting in well with a team like Baltimore, San Diego or Dallas, which generally favors a bigger line.

Q: With Bodden for another few years, do you expect New England to move Wilhite into the nickel position where I feel he's best suited? Do you know CB Kyle Arrington's contract status? I know he was picked up during the season and still finished first in special teams tackles. -- Alvin (Deerfield, Mass.)

A: I think you are right on, Alvin. When it comes to Jonathan Wilhite, I would keep him in the slot and avoid playing him on the outside if possible. As for Arrington, his contract expires after the 2010 season, but he will still be under the control of the Patriots.

Q: What do you think of the possibility of the Pats bringing in Javon Walker? He has proven himself in this league and was released by the Raiders a few weeks ago. -- Peter (Boston)

A: Peter, I'm not sure what Walker has left in the tank or that he'd qualify in that one-year, minimum-type deal as a veteran who will give you his best shot. But given the need, I'd endorse the exploration of the possibility for the Patriots.

Q: Mike, I was wondering if the Pats have any interest in RFA Richard Marshall. A 2nd round tender doesn't seem to be out of line for a young and improving corner. -- Tom (Madison, Wis.)

A: Tom, now that they have Bodden, I'd say no. I don't see them signing Marshall to a lucrative contract and giving up the second-rounder. Marshall is a solid No. 2 corner, but they have a solid No. 2 in Bodden. A player like Marshall could block Darius Butler's development.

Q: Marques Murrell? Just another warm body for training camp or a viable player? -- Lance (Brookline, Mass.)

A: Lance, I'd say it's worth a flier on him. When a team's biggest weakness is its pass rush, you look for help in any way. Murrell has a little something about him in that area from his college years at Appalachian State. If he helps, it will be on third and fourth down. The Broncos also hosted him on a visit, so there was some competition for his services, which is something to keep in mind.

Q: Hi Mike, I was wondering why the new rules for the "final 4" did not apply to the Jets' signing of LaDainian Tomlinson? It's basically a wash salary wise between Thomas Jones and LT but Jones was released. I thought they had to lose a free agent before they could sign one? -- Kevin Fitzgerald (Framingham, Mass.)

A: Because Tomlinson was released by the Chargers, and wasn't a free agent because his contract was expiring, he is categorized as a different type of free agent that "final 4" teams can sign.

Q: Mike, Ben Watson was a first-round draft pick. Now that he has left via free agency after his rookie contract has expired, do the Patriots get a compensatory draft pick, maybe as high as the end of the third round, in next year's draft? If so, doesn't that look like the exit route for Laurence Maroney next year (meaning that the Patriots will not cut him this year -- and get nothing in return -- but instead let him walk after his rookie contract expires and get a good pick for him as well)? -- Doug (Weymouth, Mass.)

A: Doug, I think a third-round 2011 compensatory pick is rich for Watson. Usually the teams who get the third-rounders -- like the Patriots in 2009 for the Asante Samuel defection -- are the benefits of another team giving up a big contract. That deal for Watson wasn't in that mega-neighborhood.

Q: Mike, any word on compensatory picks? I know the picks are awarded based on free agents lost/signed after the 2008 season, do you think they pick up any additional picks? -- Steve (Milton, Mass.)

A: Steve, those picks should be awarded Monday at the NFL's annual meeting in Orlando. The projection from "Adamjt13", who annually seems to be on the money when forecasting compensatory selections, is that the Patriots will receive four seventh-rounders, with the possibility that one of those could be a sixth-rounder.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.